I tried to encourage my baby to be born by running up and down stairs, eating spicy peppers and taking long walks. Perhaps he knew better, wanting to remain tucked inside this other world inside of me inside the world.
Sami Elyesa was born on July 18, 2014, at the height of the newest outbreak of war in Israel. My friends were suddenly divided on two sides of the tragically aptly named Red Sea, naval ships ever at its bloodied shores.
A week before his birth, I attended a service at the central synagogue in Berlin, where an American visitor spoke of loss on both sides, including parents’ inexplicable agony at the loss of a child. Later that day, my husband showed me a photo of a baby from Gaza shrouded in white. I wept for his mother, who will never breathe freely again. I continued to receive messages declaring outrage at the Israelis or at the Palestinians, all the while only haunted by that boy wrapped in cloud-colored sheets and the soft creases on his fat little hands. Did it matter if his name was Noah or Muhammad?
Where did this leave us, my Muslim husband and I? How could we — could we — belong to a world in which these lines were drawn much deeper than the sands, where blood rose up to divide us without any new prophet to then part the crimson tides?
When we met, my husband and I joked that we would have peace babies, Jewish-Muslim children to produce peace in the Middle East. What kind of sick joke was this, that our son was born now at the outbreak of war? Was it a reminder to stay centered despite the hardships of a cross-cultural marriage? Was it a drop of hope in a time when newspaper headlines held only harrowing pain?
Only today did I learn the meaning of my baby’s middle name, chosen for its biblical and koranic reference as much as its phonetic beauty. Originally, I thought it was the Arabic translation of Elijah, but it references a lesser-known prophet: in English, Elisha. He was a wonder worker in the northern kingdom of Israel and successor of Elijah. His Eastern Orthodox feast day falls on the day between our legal marriage and our wedding.
I am grateful to have learned this only after the fact, since Sami now seems fated to his middle name. His first name, we picked for other reasons — a name pronounceable in both of our cultures; one associated with Islam and yet one that leaves his identity somewhat vague. At my baby shower in New York, someone commented, “Might as well call him ‘no fly list,’ ” with a mixture of humor and sincerity.
And so Sami Elyesa was born, on the brink of two cultures, in a time of war. I found birth excruciating, despite learning to exhale. I spent seven hours in a bathtub begging my body to bring my son safely into the world. He was born small, healthy, and pink — a delicate combination of my relatives and my husband’s, with my long limbs, fingers and toes.
Preceding the birth, my husband and I fought over a Muslim ceremony, in which the father whispers a prayer into the newborn child’s ear while giving him a drop of something sweet, usually honey. “Botulism!” I cried, and we negotiated that he would instead use my first milk.
Yet the day before Sami’s birth, while I went into the first stages of labor, my husband retrieved a small jar of holy water from Mecca, with the plan to place a drop on our baby’s lips. I protested, knowing from my work on childhood nutrition that mother’s milk, exclusively, is best. Not a teaspoon or a sip or a drop of water, no matter how blessed. I threw glasses at the wall in rage.
Still, I found myself swigging from that jar in the midst of my contractions only hours later. I allowed for a single drop to be wiped across Sami’s lips. I prayed it would give him strength and protection. Magical thinking, perhaps, but sometimes hope remains our only hope.
We took Sami home almost immediately, wanting to nest. I often checked to see that he was breathing. I feared for Sami, how both his delicate body and his soul would hold up in a world with even babies wounded and killed. We were living in Germany, and I feared for him on the drive home from his first doctor’s appointment, when we witnessed a bumper sticker declaring “Sarrazin for President,” idolizing a former Social Democratic politician in Germany who wrote a bestseller on the genetic inferiority of Arabs and Turks, breathing new life into the shadowed ghosts of Nazi history. I feared for Sami each time I read the news. As the Pegida movement took to the streets of Dresden, protesting the “Islamicization of the West,” I longed to return to the United States where, I assured myself, we would feel more at ease.
To my horror, Donald’s Trump’s xenophobic suggestions, and worse, the support he has received, leave me rethinking that. Could a presidential candidate really suggest barring Muslims’ entry into the United States? Could these ideas be met not with total outrage, but a mixture of anger, fear and blatant support?
When I was pregnant in Berlin, I had believed time was on our side, as my Jewish son born in that city 80 years earlier would have suffered. Could it be now that my Muslim son will suffer in my own birth city, shared with Trump, of New York?
I don’t usually pray, and yet I don’t know what else to do. All I know now, with my delightful toddler tearing up the house, is that we must do something in this new war against our own neighbors, families and friends. It does not matter whether we bow down or raise our hands in prayer, who we believe is the last prophet (if we believe at all), or what we name our newborns. We should fight for these new lives, whose heartbeats remain steady and clear: our only embodiments of peace.
Elisabeth Becker Topkara is completing her PhD in sociology at Yale.